The UK is a prolific exporter of surveillance technology, ranging from IMSI-catchers that can monitor mobile phones to internet mass surveillance equipment.
Now, according to newly published data from the UK's Department for International Trade, the country granted a license to export surveillance technology to Turkey earlier this year. That in itself may not be very surprising—the UK has greenlit surveillance exports to Turkey in the past—but the license comes at a time when Turkey is undergoing a particularly potent wave of crackdowns and oppression against dissent, including the incarceration of journalists and human rights defenders.
"It is ethically challenging to grant the sale of these tools where the accused have little or no access to justice in the context of an ongoing state of national emergency as exists in Turkey," Alp Toker, founder of digital rights group Turkey Blocks, told Motherboard in an email.
On Tuesday, the Department for International Trade released details of export licenses handled between January 1 and March 31 2017. Included in those licenses is one to Turkey relating to "software for telecommunications interception equipment" for a law enforcement agency. As Motherboard found through the Freedom of Information Act, this term often refers to items related to IMSI-catchers, potentially used to intercept phone calls or texts over a wide area, or systems for intercepting calls from satellite phones, but the government's latest data does not name a particular product or piece of technology.
Motherboard has also found the UK previously granted other exports to Turkey specifically for IMSI-catchers, including a "compact" version. The UK has greenlit at least seven exports of surveillance technology to Turkey.
Last year, Turkey ordered the closure of more than a hundred media outlets and arrested dozens of journalists after a coup attempt. During the three months the UK government granted this latest license export, Turkey dismissed 4,400 public servants, dissidents raised claims of torture, and Human Rights Watch said the Turkish government jailed members of the democratic opposition. According to The Guardian, Turkey now imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world.
The country also faces a serious threat of terrorism, especially considering that neighboring Syria is a home for ISIS. On New Year's Eve, a gunman killed at least 39 people in Istanbul.
"It's scandalous that the UK are still providing these tools to Turkey. We have documented the human rights crackdown that has been going on in that country over the past year since the attempted coup, well before this license was granted, and it's obvious the human rights risks this export poses," Joshua Franco, a technology and human rights researcher at Amnesty International told Motherboard in an email. On Tuesday, a Turkish court ordered the arrest of Amnesty's Turkey director as well as five other human rights activists.
A Department for International Trade spokesperson told Motherboard in an email, "The UK government takes its defence export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world." The spokesperson said the UK examines each application on a case-by-case basis, and draws from NGO reports and other resources. "We have suspended or revoked licences when the level of risk changes and we constantly review local situations."
For Franco from Amnesty, that doesn't fit with the UK granting a recent license to export to Turkey. "It's not enough to say that surveillance equipment is intended for use by law enforcement if they haven't done a meaningful analysis of the risks that poses. If law enforcement think it's legitimate to arrest human rights defenders, including Amnesty's own staff, the UK need to make sure they are not complicit in the Turkish government's crackdown," he said.
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